Labor Witchhunts and Their Effects in California

By Howard Keylor

The following is based on remarks made by Howard Keylor as part of a panel discussion on the 1940s and ’50s, and the early 1960s witchhunts in California. This panel was the first of the events of the July LaborFest program in the Northern California Bay Area. Keylor focused his remarks on the political context of the witchunt period. He is a retired member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and was a leader of the ILWU work stoppage against a ship carrying apartheid South African cargo in San Francisco in 1984.

I am glad that this discussion of the witchhunts of the late 1940s and the 1950s is focused upon the working class and its institutions, the trade unions and the left working class political parties and movements. Contrary to most of the books and movies about the witchhunts, the main victim was the working class. You have only to read Len Decaux’s book, Labor Radical, to learn how tens-of-thousands of workers were driven out of their jobs and subjected to public demonization. Len had been the CIO’s publicity director until he was purged. He traveled across the U.S. working at a series of printing jobs as he was followed by the FBI and fired from one job after another. Even naturalized U.S. workers had their citizenship revoked and were deported.

This was a time of great fear—a time of capitulation and betrayal. But it was also a time of great courage and intransigent resistance.

The attacks on the left were motivated largely by the perceived need of the capitalist class to drive the left out of the trade unions and to isolate the left from the working class. In this, the bourgeoisie and their government were successful. We have suffered from that defeat of our class up to the present where it is painfully clear that the working class and the oppressed have no effective organization or leadership to resist the current attacks.

The massive strike wave of 1946, the most extensive in U.S. history, shocked the capitalists. Even though the Communist Party had opposed those strikes, even expelling trade unionists who opposed that policy, the capitalists saw the Communist Party as a potential threat. They could not forget the role of the Communist Party in the mass union struggles of the 1930s. The Northern California CIO, which was influenced by the ILWU, opposed the 1946 Oakland General Strike.


The 1947 Taft-Hartley slave-labor law was a major step in the direction of emasculating the trade unions. Taft Hartley outlawed any member of the Communist Party from holding top union office. In order to utilize the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in representation elections, union leaders had to sign non-Communist affidavits. A number of union officials who resigned from the Communist Party and signed those affidavits were tried and convicted for perjury. These convictions were usually obtained with perjured information from government witnesses.

I recommend reading False Witness, by Harvey Mattusov. His perjured testimony was instrumental in convicting Clint Jencks, an International Representative of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (MM&SWU). He later revealed in this book that he had been induced by the Justice Department to lie. For that recantation Harvey Mattusov was himself convicted and jailed for perjury. The Justice Department officials who had coached Mattusov to lie were not indicted nor tried and convicted. The Taft Hartley prosecutions of MM&SWU effectively wrecked the union’s ability to function.

The Taft Hartley non-Communist affidavits were seen as a green light to the CIO to expel 11 left-led unions in 1948. These expelled unions contained about a million workers and constituted approximately 20 percent of the entire number of workers in the CIO. Who remembers the FTA (Food Tobacco and Agricultural Workers Union), FE (Farm Equipment Workers Union) or the ACA (American Communications Association)?

The anti-communist witchhunts were a justification to the CIO and to the AFL to carry out raids against these unions, leading to the destruction and dismemberment of all but two of them. Although the United Electrical Workers Union lost about 90 percent of its membership, it did survive. The only union which survived with its core membership intact was the ILWU.

Driven out

Utilizing the Magnuson Act, which required all maritime union members to apply for and possess a Coast Guard Pass, the sea-going unions were purged of all of their leftists and militants. All militants of the left-led Marine Cooks and Stewards Union for example lost their right to go to sea.

Leftists were driven out of many of the AFL and CIO unions in California during this period often using the anti-communist provisions of union constitutions.

One of the most important of the expelled CIO unions was the FTA, the Food Tobacco and Agricultural Workers Union. In the post-WWII period the FTA had organized the cannery workers in California in a campaign including hard-fought strikes. In a NLRB bargaining election in 1946 the FTA lost to the Teamsters by a narrow margin in an election characterized by open collaboration between the cannery bosses and the Teamsters, featuring hysterical anti-communist propaganda.

This is the union, which in 1948 led a three-months strike of 7000 Filipino asparagus cutters in the delta area west of Stockton, a strike in which I participated. Philip Vera Cruz has a chapter about this strike in the book A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement, based on his oral histories. This is the only recorded literary reference to this massive strike. Philip later went on to become Vice President of the United Farm Workers Union. I probably met Philip at that time although he (like me) was just starting out in strike actions.

FTA Local 78 had organized the packing shed workers in Arizona and California, which covered lettuce, melons and small fruit packing from the Salt River Valley in Arizona (lettuce), to the Imperial Valley (lettuce), to the Salinas Valley (lettuce, carrots and artichokes), to the Central Valley (melons), all the way to Lake County, Middle River, and Placerville (small fruit). The activists were the refugees from the 1930s dust bowl who followed the packing season living in trailers. I worked in this industry in 1949 and was impressed at the level of rank and file participation in stabilizing a union of seasonally employed often migratory packing shed workers which did not have unemployment insurance or a union shop requiring membership and compulsory dues payment. The Wagner act had omitted “agricultural” workers from unemployment insurance and forbade them from signing Union Shop contracts. Packing shed workers were classified as “agricultural” workers. Local 78 was also largely destroyed during the witchhunts with major vigilante violence in Arizona.

Another of the expelled unions that was important in California was the Farm Equipment Workers Union (FE). I met Wyndam Mortimer in Stockton in 1948 when he was an FE representative servicing a farm equipment plant in that city. “Windy” was probably the most talented of the Communist Party organizers of the auto industry during the 1930s. He led the Flint sit-down strike and should have become the President of the United Auto Workers Union. Wyndam had been removed from his post as UAW Vice President during the purges.

The Magnuson Act (Magnusson was a Democratic Senator) was designed to also apply to shore-based longshoremen. Many ILWU longshoremen who applied for the Coast Guard Pass to be allowed to work in the Army and Navy piers were refused the pass and were barred from working at those piers. When the Coast Guard announced that Coast Guard passes would be required to work at non-military commercial piers, the union responded that if any ILWU longshoreman was turned away from working a commercial dock to which he had been dispatched, then no longshoreman would work that pier. This is about the only case where the government backed off from a confrontation with a union resisting the witchhunts.


The employers and the government had been defeated in a bruising confrontation during the 3-months-long strike of 1948 in which they had set out to destroy the ILWU. The waterfront employers had only one main contract demand: “Get rid of your leaders!” One interesting event during this confrontation was when the NLRB, acting under the auspices of the Taft Hartley Law, conducted an “election” in every port on the coast in which ILWU longshoremen could vote directly on whether to accept the bosses’ last offer. Not one longshoreman showed up in any of the dozens of polling places to vote! Toward the end of the strike the bosses began using scabs at Fort Mason, a commercial dock in San Francisco, to load military cargo; the ILWU had refused to handle any military cargo during the 1948 strike. The ploy failed when many of the scabs were visited on returning to their residences by the longshoremen’s “educational” committee and had their legs broken. They all quit.

The employers’ organization collapsed and was reconstituted as the Pacific Maritime Association by J. Paul St. Sure who brokered a deal with the ILWU leaving the contract intact. That deal included a pledge not to challenge the ILWU’s jurisdiction on the waterfront. In return the ILWU agreed to pull back from organizing on the Great Lakes and in the New Orleans area and to discontinue their organizing in the Central Valley of California.

Teamster raids continued on the Warehouse division of the ILWU with considerable losses.

There was an historic anomaly in the way in which the Communist Party and its allies in California confronted the witchhunts and the way in which the CP nationally dealt with the attacks. The CP had determined that the U.S. was entering a period of fascism in which it was necessary to lower its public profile and to send about ten percent of its membership underground. This proved to be very demoralizing to those who participated. The Socialist Workers Party had flirted with this idea but rejected it.

The CP in California had a somewhat different profile to that in the rest of the country. Members continued to be active in open peace and civil rights campaigns. The Weekly Peoples World, edited by the unusually able journalist Al Richmond, continued to have a wide readership and distribution. When people in Stockton, for example, were reluctant to subscribe by mail, we got a weekly bundle of the paper and my comrades and I spent a week ducking FBI observation to deliver the papers to individual subscribers.

Leftists in California tended to be much more confrontational and challenging when subpoenaed to appear for interrogation before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When HUAC subpoenaed every leftist attorney in Southern California, the hearings turned into a disaster for the witch-hunters. Every attorney went on the offensive with eloquent attacks on the politics and personal records of the members of the committee. I used to have a set of tape recordings of those hearings; it made a great listening experience.

When Paul Robeson was refused a venue to perform anywhere in Northern California, my Stockton comrades helped to organized a concert for him in the largest Black Baptist Church in Stockton. The establishment and the local newspaper came unglued, but the church was totally packed with standing room only for the concert.

The 1948 campaign of the leftist Independent Progressive Party in California reached into remote corners of the state with many candidates and much propaganda. In the Congressional District, which included San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, the unknown IPP candidate got 25 percent of the vote.

In the late 1950s CP members were deeply involved in the Democratic Party Club movement, which resurrected the moribund Democratic Party in California.

There is an historical precedent to this California CP exceptionalism. In 1934, the California Communist Party was ordered to concentrate all of its resources into organizing farm workers in the Central Valley. Sam Darcy, State Secretary, ignored those orders from New York and threw all CP personnel and resources into the developing maritime union struggles. Sam proved to have been right but he was removed from his post and disappeared from history. Perhaps the moral of this story is that mutiny is sometimes the best policy.

The main legal base of the McCarthy period witchhunts, including the Smith Act, the McCarran Act, provisions of Taft-Hartley, the Landrum Griffin and the Magnuson Act were finally overturned as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. State criminal syndicalism laws, which were also used to jail leftists were also finally overturned. No doubt this was because they had served their purpose and this level of suppression was no longer needed. The left had been shattered, the trade unions had been purged of class struggle militants, and bourgeois parliamentary democracy could go back to its job of fooling the masses into believing that they had any real role in government.


My own view is that this is not the case today. The ongoing general collapse of capitalism requires a high level of institutional repression.

The growing level of resistance to the current repressive government measures gives me hope that the working class and the oppressed will not retreat into submissive silence but will openly challenge the corporations and their political shills and their repressive apparatus. This resistance is handicapped by the reformist politics of most of the fragmentary left.

Capitalist state repression will end only when the corporations are seized and expropriated without a dime of compensation.

—LaborFest Presentation, July 3, 2011